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The MV-Liemba on Lake Tanganyika last year.
The MV-Liemba on Lake Tanganyika last year.
Alexandre Kauffmann

KIGOMA — The outline of the MV-Liemba looms on the horizon. The oldest ferry in the world drops anchor off the coast of Kagunga, a Tanzanian village just three miles from Burundi's border. Around 600 Burundian passengers are subsequently brought on board after arriving from the shore on small fishing boats. The MV-Liemba will steam off in the direction of Kigoma, its home port in Tanzania, some 25 miles away.

No downtime is allowed: Kagunga's humanitarian crisis has grown worse over the years with the massive influx of migrants. The village has faced constant water shortages, as well as multiple health epidemics. More than 50,000 refugees have already landed in Kagunga since the beginning of political tensions in Burundi after Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza announced in April that he will be running for a third term in apparent violation of the constitution. A failed coup attempt and violent demonstrations have left at least 20 people dead.

Amidst the unrest, is the unlikely latest chapter in the 102-year history of the MV-Liemba, which the representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Joyce Mends-Cole says has played a "crucial role" in responding to the humanitarian fallout of the political crisis. As rugged mountain ranges prevent migrants from going safely on foot to the safety of southern Tanzania, the boat must be used instead.

"The MV-Liemba enables us to evacuate 1200 people a day to Kigoma," Mends-Cole adds.

It is not the first time that the MV-Liemba has been in the middle of a conflict. It was built in 1913, on the eve of World War I, as a battleship to ensure German domination on Lake Tanganyika. At the time, the German Empire was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II and controlled a territory which today corresponds with Rwanda, Burundi and the continental part of Tanzania. The boat was named Graf von Goetzen after German East Africa's first Governor.

The warship started to patrol in 1915: it served to transport personnel and launch surprise attacks against the Allies. The following year, German Army General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck ordered the Graf von Goetzen to be scuttled below the surface to keep it from falling into enemy's hands. The ship's engineers covered the engines of the boat with a thick layer of grease to facilitate a potential raising after the end of the conflict.

Broken but still afloat

After its intentional sinking to a depth of 20 meters near the banks of Katabe Bay, the ship was relaunched by the Belgians in the port of Kigoma in 1918, only to be flooded by a storm two years later. After having taken control of Kigoma, the United Kingdom raised the wreck once more in 1927. The boat was renamed MV-Liemba and became a simple ferry that escorted passengers and goods on Lake Tanganyika.

British writer Cecil Scott Forester was inspired by this unusual fate and wrote a novel called The African Queen published in 1935, set during World War I. The book describes the encounter between an aging boorish Englishman of adventure and a rather uptight 30-year-old woman. Of course they end up falling in love and embark upon a daring undertaking: to sink a German gunboat, which is the spitting image of the Graf von Goetzen.

The Graf von Goetzen in 1915 — Photo: Arche-foto

The MV-Liemba remains etched in some people's memories mostly thanks to the book's screen adaptation, directed by John Huston in 1951 and starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, in which Bogart won an Oscar.

"The MV-Liemba definitely needs to be refurbished today," notes Tanzanian Captain Titus Mnvani, who has been at the helm of the ferry for more than two decades. "This boat is broken down but still essential. It is a source of supply for three million villagers living around Lake Tanganyika. All these people would be cut off from the outside world without us."

Mnvani says he's witnessed many pregnant women departing for Kigoma's hospital who have giving birth in the gangway. "I keep helping them, so I ended up learning basic notions of obstetrics!," he quips.

When the United Nations does not request its services for humanitarian emergencies, the former warship ferries twice a month from Kigoma to Mpulungu, a Zambian town located in the southern portion of the lake. It covers 280 miles punctuated by 15 ports of call. Twenty years ago, it had a very different route, starting in Burundi, through Tanzania and Zambia, before stopping at the main ports of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The violence (civil wars and genocides) that overwhelmed the African Great Lake region at the beginning of the 1990's put an end to this itinerary. "We quickly avoided Africa's zones of conflict,"Captain Titus explains."Armed Congolese militias regularly stormed the MV-Liemba with grenades and Kalashnikovs."

Uncertain future

Today, when it is not transporting refugees, MV-Liemba is always a few hours —even sometimes several days — late; and its delayed arrival inevitably causes rumors that it has sunk again.

Many different characters can be seen aboard: a tax collector with a stammer writing romance novels rubs shoulders with foulmouthed Congolese merchants. The aroma of mangos, spices and hot oil come from the holds. The siren rings out. Dhows quickly cast off. When the ferry, alluminated by the oil lamps of the small boats, gets closer to the villages in the middle of the night, it looks like a ghost ship emerging from the past. As if the MV-Liemba had the power to reverse the current order of centuries…

Passengers can see eclectic landscapes along the way: Mahale Mountains, the town of Kipili and its lush greenery, Manda's paradise island with a water so pure that it cannot be drunk… After two days of crossing, the boat finally arrives to Mpulungu. MV-Liemba's Captain should not remain there for too long: port charges run very high and the ferry has operated at a loss since 2010…

Then what is the future of this floating legend? Tanzanian authorities are seeking funding to exchange this historical boat for a new one. In the meantime, several associations argue over MV-Liemba's next calling, including one campaigning for its conversion into a luxury hotel or a tourist boat. Another wishes it to be repatriated to Papenburg where it was built and turned it into a museum.

As for the UN's Joyce Mends-Cole, she is just pleased that this century-old ship is still able to float, to bring families from Burundi to safer ground. But she notes yet another regret for the trouble tides of history: "MV-Liemba used to be used for bringing Burundians back into their country. Sadly the situation is reversed today."

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